“It’s who you know, not what you know.”
Networking has always been a part of the music industry to the great advantage of some and the overlooking of a great many more. Women and other underrepresented minorities often struggle to find footing in the different branches of professional music, from classical to popular styles, and it can feel like there are extra mountains to climb just to get noticed, much less hired.
In psychology, this feeling reflects a trend toward “in-group bias” (the proverbial ‘old boys club’), in which the dominant members of a profession or group select new members based on how well they relate to them. I don’t necessarily think there is always intentional discrimination involved, but that as men in our society have been socialized primarily to interact equally with other men, this can feel like the most comfortable route to take when booking for a gig or filling a position. There’s less risk of conflict and less need to ‘speak a different language’. The end result is that a whole swath of the population that is looking for work or recognition is left out, or feels marginalized.
The fight against sexual harassment through campaigns like #metoo and #TimesUp are incredibly important, and I think go hand in hand with the ways women in the music industry are fighting for equal representation and the ability to be authentically themselves without fear of repercussions. Besides seeking visibility for the issues women and other marginalized groups face in the broader industry, I also see and participate in so many powerful internal movements that, behind the scenes and in the public eye, are changing the game for female performers. I want to highlight a few of my favorites.
Binders Full of Women
As a Minneapolis-area local, the whole game changed for me the day Andrea Swensson started a private Facebook group called “Binders Full of Women in Minnesota Music” (a spoof on Mitt Romney’s 2012 unfortunate comment about the number of female applicants he’d seen for cabinet positions). Someone added me, and suddenly the whole diverse, beautiful community of women, female-identifying, and non binary folks in my music scene was at my fingertips. Immediately, I knew we could all use it as a place beyond networking- a place where we all felt safe, seen, and valued, a place where we could complain about an incident, spread knowledge about things going on, tell people who to avoid and who to watch out for, and most of all, HIRE EACH OTHER. A whole community of people in love with music and performing, ready to each other up.
Since becoming a part of that group, I’ve hired and been hired, attended a free clinic on sound engineering hosted by one of our members, started a roster of local freelancers, and added exponentially to my list of cool local music to listen to and support. And that leads me to my next feature…
Last year, my good friend and collaborator Rebecca Hass and I decided to go beyond digital networking, and starting doing semi-regular happy hour meet-ups for female-identifying folks in our local music scene. Since then, we’ve hosted 3 or 4 of them (I’ve lost count!) in which a collection of women both diverse in background and musical genre have attended, trading cards and war stories, and agreed to keep in touch and promote one another. Our next venture is to host a jam session, and Rebecca has plans to do composer-specific meet-ups. It’s informal, friendly, and fun- and I’m so glad to have a colleague to coordinate it with.
Sarah Schmalenberger, horn & musicology professor at the University of St Thomas, and another good friend and colleague, started BrassChix ten years ago as a way to bring multiple generations and ability levels of brass-playing women together for a day of music and camaraderie. She hired me in 2012 to be the “Celebrity Trombonist” and I was delighted to present my experiences and educational philosophies to the trombonists in attendance. Since then I’ve presented or participated every year. Women are a minority in brass performance at most levels, but having a community to draw from is so important for the next generation, and so soul-fulfilling for us ‘old guard’ that are paving the way for more women to pick up brass instruments.
The Art of Asking
It’s not necessarily a community (although AFP’s fans would argue differently), but an idea- in 2013 performer Amanda Palmer presented a TED talk on “The Art of Asking” detailing the ways a new, digital marketplace could be a humongous asset to artists and musicians. She had just crowdfunded an album through the most successful Kickstarter in history to that date, and people were listening.
In some ways, I find the approach simplistic, and perhaps not the route everyone would go, but what really hit home for me is the idea that asking for what you want is not a bad thing. I think we are afraid to ask/trained not to. “American exceptionalism” tells us that we should do it all ourselves, bootstraps, etc etc. But what if we made our goals known, showed clearly how we wanted to get there, and then asked for help?
Last year, my student Caroline did something I never would have done in high school. She had an audition for her fall band assignment and it didn’t go the way she wanted to. She was convinced that she could do better, that nerves got in the way of preparation. So she went to her band director and asked for a second chance. He said yes, and after re-audiitoning, she was told she’d made it into the next level band. I was so proud of her for knowing her ability and her power that I could barely contain myself. I think maybe I cried a little bit.
Years ago I was back in my hometown of San Diego having a beer with Sean Reusch, who taught me in high school and continues to be a friend and mentor to this day. I was going through some stuff, really discouraged by the music scene in Minnesota and feeling like no one saw me. I was ready to burn it all down and do something else, ANYTHING, where I didn’t feel like a ‘woman in music’, power- and gig-less. Sean acknowledged all my concerns and then said, “You deserve to play; you’ve done the work. Now you need to ask for what you want: an opportunity, an audition, a lesson, whatever. But you need to ask, you need to be available for it.”
When I got home I messaged a few ‘power players’ on the trombone scene and asked to get together for coffee or lessons or just to be considered on a gig list. I started my professional Facebook page and started marketing myself more as an educator and unconventional performer. It hasn’t all been up from there- and I wouldn’t say I feel like the biggest trombone success on the scene, but I’m happy with the opportunities and experiences I can now rely on getting regularly.
So for #womenshistorymonth my message to you is: Go out, find your people. Ask. Share. Give. Hold each other up. The new gig economy is all of us, creating and sharing our humanity through art.